Lockdown hasn’t been all bad for local Oxford chamber choir Commotio. Concerts may have had to be cancelled, but the recent release of the choir’s seventh CD is definitely cause for celebration.
Recorded in Oxford in March last year, the CD brings together two works by British composer Francis Pott: At First Light, which Commotio premiered at the SJE on 16th March 2019, and Word, premiered by the Choir of Merton College in 2015 and performed by Commotio in 2018.
Francis is delighted at the release of what he believes to be two of his finest works to date.
The earlier of the two, Word, was commissioned by The Revd Dr Nicholas Fisher in 2011 for the Merton Choirbook, a special project that brought together new works by contemporary composers to mark Merton’s 750th anniversary in 2014.
“He wanted a piece that was a kind of meditation on the reading of the gospels in the 21st century,” Francis explains. “And he had a very specific idea. He said, ‘I want you to set the following five poems of RS Thomas and to intersperse them with St John’s Prologue in the New Revised Standard Version’. You can’t get much more specific than that!
“In the technical sense the choir members all have other jobs so I suppose they’re amateurs, but in another sense they’re up there with the very best professionals”
“It was a really tough task. I’ve always loved RS Thomas’s work, but I’ve always thought it was unsettable.
“I was also told not to use the definite article. It had to be just Word. It was as precise as that!
“So that was originally written in 2012 and premiered in 2015, then Matt Berry of Commotio took it up and they did it in September 2018 in Keble Chapel.”
At First Light similarly interweaves sacred texts with poetry, this time drawing on the Latin liturgical texts as well as works by several poets.
Commissioned by Philadelphia resident Eric Bruskin in memory of his mother, the piece was intended to be both commemorative and celebratory.
“That was quite confusing, because plainly he wanted to express grief as well as celebration,” Francis says. “He also wanted it to be a kind of requiem, but not in name.
“He wasn’t very clear what texts he wanted, so it’s turned out a sort of semi-secular requiem. Parts of it are what you would expect in a requiem, but there’s no Dies Irae or Sanctus or anything like that, and it uses poems by a number of different poets.
“It’s got seven movements, and the whole thing lasts about 35 minutes.
“The middle movement is a showpiece with a kind of show-off motet, and I think that has a life of its own, detached from the rest of the work. I thought if I put that in the middle I could arrange the inevitably slow music around it.
“The other thing Eric wanted was a cello because he liked my cello sonata, so it’s got a solo cello part.
“The cello serves as a kind of foil to the choir, because the choir is used as a composite voice of human experience, and the cello is more the idea of the individual commentating on the music.”
The recording of Word and At First Light has renewed a long-standing connection between Francis and Commotio.
“I go back a long way personally with Matthew Berry, the conductor, because in another incarnation I was a music lecturer at St Hilda’s through the 1990s and during the early part of that period Matthew was an organ scholar at University College.
“I can’t remember if I was actually teaching him, but one of my duties was to get together a choir once a term, which was no mean feat because St Hilda’s in those days was all women. So I had to go and find male voices, and Matthew, as well as being an organist, was a very good counter tenor, so he very kindly always stepped up and we got to know each other.”
After Matthew graduated and Francis moved on from St Hilda’s, the pair lost touch for several years before meeting up again at an Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) Convention. This led, in 2010, to Commotio commissioning Francis to write a piece in memory of a former choir member who had tragically died of breast cancer.
The result was the eight-part mass In the Heart of Things, which Commotio recorded in 2011 along with a selection of Francis’s other choral pieces. The disc was released by Naxos in January 2012.
That was the start of an ongoing relationship between Francis and the choir. “They have loyally performed other pieces of mine at intervals since then. I wrote a little Christmas piece for them as a thank-you for that recording, and they have performed it occasionally.
“But this latest recording is the first big thing for a few years, and I’m very grateful to them.
“It makes a mockery of the notion of what professional and amateur are, because in the technical sense the choir members all have other jobs so I suppose they’re amateurs, but in another sense they’re up there with the very best professionals. Absolutely stunning.”
Francis is equally impressed with the two soloists who feature on the recording.
“The cellist for At First Light is a wonderful cellist called Joseph Spooner. He’s recorded quite widely, and he’s a colleague from the London College of Music, where I taught composition. So I’ve known him for a long time.
“The organist for Word is Christian Wilson, who is based in Oxford at the moment and has an international career. He’s an absolutely fantastic organist, so that’s very exciting for me.”
At First Light was released by Naxos on 10th July. For more information, visit https://www.commotio.org/at-first-light–word.html